Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Report from the Front: Sunday Liturgy at Most Holy Redeemer Parish in San Francisco

Steve and I went to liturgy this past weekend at Most Holy Redeemer church in the Castro district of San Francisco.  It's the parish of the friend we've been visiting, Richard.  So we met him there for liturgy on Sunday.

I've been thinking about the experience and want to share a few insights on this blog.  Since it's in the Castro, MHR is a largely gay parish--that is, it has a large percentage of gay, lesbian, and trans parishioners, though non-gay Catholics, including heterosexual couples with children, also come to MHR because of its vibrant worship style and its welcoming community.  And quite a few people, we understand--including a cousin of Steve's and the cousin's partner--drive into the city on Sunday from a distance to attend liturgy at MHR.

This is actually the second time we've gone to MHR.  Our last visit was in 2001, when we were in San Francisco to see another cousin of Steve's who also went to MHR.  He has subsequently died.  

My impressions: first and foremost, the tangible love evident in the lives of many of those worshiping in the parish on Sunday.  What do I mean by that?  In part, it's an observation based on what I know of the lives of a number of parishioners, including my friend Richard, who give constantly and freely of their time to all sorts of ministries.  In Richard's case, this is visiting a local AIDS hospice several times a week, simply to spend time with, listen to, and befriend those living in the hospice.  

If one began tallying up the various beyond-parish ministries in which its members are involved, this is a parish that would stand out in the American Catholic landscape, because of the quality and pervasiveness of the commitment of its parishioners to works of mercy to make life more tolerable for others.  I don't mean to say that other parishes don't do the same, or that many other parishes also don't have numerous members engaged in many kinds of ministry.

What I do mean to say is that the ministerial involvement of parishioners of MHR is pronounced and "concentrated."  It calls into question--radically so--the popular meme (also employed by many Catholics resistant to recognizing the spiritual worth of those who are LGBT) that gay folks are self-indulgent and uninterested in anyone except themselves and their tight communities.  

The parishioners of MHR--many of them, a significant percentage of them--put love into action in concrete ways.  Self-giving, self-transcending love: the agape love that is the ideal of Christian life, according to Christian scriptures.

In this analysis, I'm actually borrowing from our friend Richard--yes, the same Richard we've been visiting here.  He's a retired theologian whose speciality is spirituality.  Richard (Hardy) has written a book that studies the lives of gay men caring for partners living with HIV or AIDS.  Though his book, Loving Men, is not focused specifically on his parish, MHR, the findings of his book are pertinent to this discussion of the agapic love exhibited by this largely LGBT parish.

After studying men across Canada and the U.S. providing care for their HIV+ partners, Richard concluded that the kind of love held up as an ideal by the Christian tradition is fully evident in the lives of many gay couples.  Love that goes beyond itself, gives of itself to the point of dying to self, to make the life of another flourish.  Love that pours itself out on behalf of the other.  In Richard's view, everything that the Christian tradition has said for centuries about the signs of a deep, authentic spiritual life is evident in the lives and loving relationships of many gay couples.

The second point I want to make about the tangible love we experienced at MHR this past Sunday is that it's within the parish, as well.  The agapic love for others that flows out from the parish into the broader community is gathered up, first and foremost--as it should be--within the parish community, in the relationship of the members of the parish to each other.  And in its worship.

It's unusual to go to many Catholic parishes around the country and see lots of people hugging and kissing each other before liturgy gets underway--talking volubly, catching up on news about each other's week, swapping information about parish members in need of attention.  All this was going on in the church all around us as Steve and I waited for Richard this past Sunday.  And it continued right up to the start of the liturgy.  The parish was alive with chatter and embraces from the time people began arriving for liturgy until the liturgy began.

Because all of us internalize homophobia as we grow up in heteronormative cultures, there's a part of me that sees such exhibitions through a homophobic lens.  The part of me viewing the pre-liturgy gathering at MHR with a cold eye speaks with a nagging inner voice that observes icily, "Well, what do you expect?  These are gay men, after all.  Hugging, kissing, gossiping; that's what they do.  In what way does this represent some goal for parish life that other parishes might be well advised to pursue?"

There's a part of me, in other words, that can worship at a place like MHR and imagine what it would be like to drop in from someplace like, say, Boise, Grand Forks, Spartanburg, or Little Rock, see all the embracing and talking--all the gay, lesbian, and trans folks embracing and chattering away--and be totally turned off by the experience.  

And yet there's another part of me--and it's not just a gay part, but a human part--that recognizes the outrageous distortion which such a homophobic optic imposes on the experience of LGBT people gathered to worship.  This human part of me, the core of health that constantly resists both the imposed and the internalized homophobia of my culture, recognizes that what I see when I see the tangible love of members of a parish like MHR for each other is not gay love. 

It's love.  Love is the point.  Not the sexual orientation of those sharing love in a church or parish setting.  Love that is tested by its effects, known by the fruit it bears: love that shows itself as love by feeding the hungry, visiting and nursing the sick, clothing the naked, providing shelter for the homeless, welcoming the stranger and setting a table for her.  

Parishioners of MHR tell me that on his speaking tour in the U.S. and Canada in 2008, Australian Catholic bishop Geoffrey Robinson spoke at MHR.  And in his comments to the parish, I'm told, Bishop Robinson said to those gathered to hear him that MHR is a signpost to the church of the future: a visible sign of the invisible grace that we should expect parish life and worship to exemplify, if the church is to remain viable in this millennium.

Based on the slim evidence of my two visits to MHR in the past decade, I'd say that Bishop Robinson is on target.  MHR models in an exemplary way what it is to be a Catholic community of worship and service to others at the beginning of the 21st century.

And what is remarkable about the way in which MHR parish embodies the Catholic tradition at this point in history is that those engaged in this parish's life and worship are not wanted by the church as a whole--either by its pastoral leaders or by many of their brothers and sisters.  The love that is concentrated in a particular way in this parish whose members happen to be largely LGBT is concentrated here precisely because the members of this parish have found a home at MHR that is not present in much of the rest of the American Catholic landscape.

And having found a home for themselves as followers of Jesus unwanted by the rest of the church, they are intent on making a home for others who are unwanted in the world at large.  The love that flows between members of this community and then flows out in ministry to others is love rooted in the experience of marginalization--an experience that sometimes gives those who endure it a keen eye for the marginalization of others, and a determination to resist that marginalization and overcome its effects.

As I worshiped at MHR and as I have reflected on my experience there, I am puzzled all over again by the conspicuous blindness of the Roman Catholic church at an institutional level at this point in history, as the church responds to its LGBT members.  If the love concentrated in a parish like MHR were not forced into the reservoir of a "gay parish," if it were allowed to express itself freely and openly in Catholic communities everywhere, the whole church would be radically transformed.

Transformed by the leavening effects of a love that is love, even if the name gay or lesbian is tagged onto the love--agapic, self-giving love.  The kind of love to which Christians are called to aspire, and which we are challenged to exemplify to the world as the primary sign of God's salvific presence in our midst.

It seems sheer madness to me that when the tag "gay" and "lesbian" is added to it, this love is simply not wanted by the pastoral leaders of a church that is badly out of kilter precisely because those pastoral leaders so often, in so many ways, belie the gospels by treating various groups of human beings today as invisible and unwanted.  How can the church possibly afford, I wonder, to deny gay and lesbian love at this point in history, if it expects to have a viable future?  And if it expects to heal from the wounds inflicted by several generations of pastoral leadership that undermines catholicity in an exceptionally stark way, as it chooses to treat some demeaned groups of human beings as if they simply do not exist and have no place in God's plan of salvation?